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Time to rethink the way we work and travel

Time to rethink the way we work and travel

Like so much else in our societies that we had taken for granted before the COVID-19 crisis, the daily commute has for many been temporarily set aside in a makeshift home office.

After weeks of lockdown and confinement, the priority now is to relaunch the economy, while maintaining the necessary health measures.

The economic impact of this crisis will be like no other before: the IMF projects GDP to fall by some 6-7% this year in advanced economies. Given the uncertainty around how long the pandemic will last, it could be far worse. Entire sectors of the economy are at risk. Millions of people have already lost their source of income. The ILO now estimates that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy, amounting to nearly half of the global workforce, are at risk of losing their livelihoods.

After the first wave of infections, countries from across a hard-hit Europe have started to relax measures or are preparing to do so. Governments have announced sequenced plans to manage the deconfinement process. However, staggered our collective return to mobility may be, all public transport networks will need to adapt significantly to cope.

According to the President of RATP, the public transport body for the Paris region, maintaining social distancing would allow for only 2 million trips daily, compared to the 8 million foreseen for this week when 70% of services are planned to  resume. Many cities will face similar situations.

Organizing dozens or in some cases hundreds of kilometers of flexible cycling lanes and opening up street space to pedestrians – in cities such as ParisNew York CityBerlinMilan and Brussels - are excellent initiatives and will help to spread the burden on public transport. This will need to be supported by initiatives aimed at encouraging all forms of active mobility and staggering the commuting time to encourage as much mobility as possible in a safe and sustainable manner within social distancing restrictions to avoid the negative impacts of reduced mobility.

We must also avoid a massive surge in private car use due to health fears, which, on top of negative environmental and health consequences, would also add to the deep inequalities that the COVID-19 crisis has already laid bare in all areas including in relation to gender.

Believed impossible until we had no other choice, teleworking at the scale we have witnessed over the last weeks has on the whole been far more successful than expected.  Prolonging telework for all those for whom it is feasible will leave space, in public transport, and on the roads, to those who have no other option. This will allow the deconfinement to work.

We do not know yet how long social distancing measures will have to prevail. So, as head of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the organization of the United Nations responsible for inland transport, I call on all governments of the region and all sectors to facilitate teleworking, combined with flexible working hours, to the maximum extent possible, for as long as needed. All measures should be taken in parallel to tackle gender inequalities, in the workplace, in public transport and at home.

As we plan to reopen our economies, the lessons learned from this crisis must lead to a paradigm shift in work arrangements and mobility, resulting in more efficient and environmentally-friendly trips; increased flexibility arrangements to flatten peak hours; greater reliance on active mobility (cycling and walking), and reinvented public transport networks, making the most of intelligent and autonomous systems. UNECE’s regulatory and policy tools can accelerate this transition.

In the United Nations we too must adopt new ways of making decisions; new ways of working together. We must reassess how many meetings we need to organize, when and how. In difficult diplomatic negotiations or in setting complex norms, nothing will replace direct contact. Let’s reassess needs for other, less strategic tasks.

The confinement has brought some tangible, short-term environmental benefits. Congestion has been largely eliminated. Air pollution – responsible for over 7 million deaths worldwide each year – has been slashed. Major reductions in traffic – the transport sector accounts for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU – are contributing to what is expected to be the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions. The global slowdown has also offered welcome respite to pressured ecosystems. For road safety, March 2020 saw a year-on-year reduction in road deaths of around 40% in France and Sweden, and 56% for New York City.

For all the devastation and suffering of this crisis, by slamming the brakes on so much that seemed so unstoppable, it has shone a clear path towards more sustainable transport options to help address some of the greatest challenges we face, in particular pollution and climate change.   

Some of these short-term benefits can be extended to the medium and long term. For that to succeed, we must not return to business as usual. We must consider working in a smarter and more connected way, whilst remaining mobile and ensuring that our mobility is efficient, safe and reliable – in other words, sustainable.

Coming out from this pandemic cleaner, greener and more resilient will require immense political will and demand compromises from each and every one of us. As we recover and rebuild, the gains are simply too big to ignore.

But now, quite literally, we must urgently get on with our homework. For us, this means continuing to work with governments and all stakeholders to adapt the regulatory frameworks and policies required for the sustainable shift of our mobility. We have no time to lose. I count on your engagement.


Olga Algayerova
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
Executive Secretary of the UNECE